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United in Passion: French Cycling Clubs - Part 2
Training with the Étoile Cycliste de Clermont-Ferrand club
Spending a Wednesday afternoon doing sports is a time-honored activity in France – kids up to the end of high school don’t have classes after Wednesday lunchtime. So as we arrive at the Gabriel Montpied Stadium, where the Étoile Cycliste de Clermont Ferrand has its basement store room, we get ready to dive back into the shared experiences of childhood.
Behind the car park gates, a kid is riding up and down, weaving between plastic markers. This space is what the coaches call the ‘plateau’, where the cycling school teaches the basics to the youngest riders: little games of skill, linking turns together, or exercises in riding with no hands, gaining confidence both in one’s self and one’s machine.
The kids look like nothing so much as a multicoloured flock of sparrows, into which a few long-legged waders – kids who’ve grown early – have been inserted. There are tiny scraps wearing tracksuits over which they’ve pulled a hand-me-down bib short from an older brother; others who have scraped their fragile legs over bikes loaned by the club, while a few have full carbon machines – probably presents from fathers replaying their own ambitions in miniature. A tiny Marion Rousse plays havoc with the hearts of these Gallopins-in-the-making when she laps them in all in a race. Another takes on the big sister role and laughs. Mocked by a tween? Her smaller friend teases her right back, about her mountain bike cleats. It’s a fair fight: everyone starts their cycling careers modestly, and falling behind in the race to buy equipment does not disqualify anyone here.
We get changed in a dusty shed between two mowers and a few bags of fertilizer. The little brother of one of the club’s young racers urgently needs to relieve himself, but the stadium toilets are locked. The workshop, however, is open. In there, a few antique frames lying around that will never see the track again, boxes of trophies, spare parts of all kinds, a stack of club leaflets from 1993, and a debutant rider who is having her brake cable changed.
For lift-off we have to wait for Guy Mas, a former first-cat racer and now a maths teacher who acts as talent spotter in his volcanic homeland. After the local Vélodrome du Stade Philippe-Marcombes, the ECCF’s home for thirty years, was demolished, the club’s officials had to fight for this new premises. Situated in the zone of Clermont-Nord, it is less practical for parents dropping off their kids or for those who make their own way to training, but the development of cycle lanes in the vicinity means that the club’s pelotons can easily get to the minor roads of the surrounding plain.
In front of the stadium, the ‘plateau’ games continue for the ‘Poussins’ (7- and 8-year-old ‘Chicks’) and the ‘Pupilles’ (9- and 10-year-old ‘Pupils’). Some of the stronger ‘Minimes’ (With no real translation, but something like ‘cubs’ – riders who are 13 and 14 years old) are being held back by their restricted gear – they are allowed a 46-tooth-chainring – while some of the less beefy ‘Cadets’ (‘Youngers’ who are 15 and 16) struggle with their 50. The biggest kids horse around and affect the game-faces of pro riders. Some of them are already making a name for themselves at neighbourhood races. They will soon have to accept the monastic rigor of high-performance life, if they want to keep progressing, at a time when their friends are succumbing to the boozy charms of student life. Who could hold it against them if they fall off the path into this sport that is considered, with boxing, among the hardest of there is?
When I ask them what made them want to take up cycling, they reply, ‘The Tour de France, yeah,’ as if this is an obvious fact. The other obvious fact is called Romain Bardet: while there are fans of FDJ (the second French World Tour team), Bardet (of AG2r-La Mondiale) is the local hero. The youngest riders see him on television, the bigger ones meet him on the cols or at concerts, and the oldest riders have all met his father at races or when training.
Guy arrives and the troop gets moving, two by two, with nobody rotating to the front. After a few kilometres, we reach the small roads of the plain. The coaches keep close watch but let their pupils share the responsibility of being on the front. From the beginning of bike school they have instilled safe riding in them. It’s fundamental to group riding, but also in the kids’ solo practice – even if that’s only for those who, despite the lack of cycle lanes in town, get to and from the club under their own steam.
‘You gave me bad advice, I should have worn shorts,’ says Axel, currently in last position, to his mate Adin.
‘You’ve got to wear longs if you want to sharpen up,’ retorts Adin, as he fills a gap left by one of the youngsters.
The group remains together until someone punctures and the repair drags on. It’s the split. The Juniors, the Cadets and the strongest of the Minimes leave in a chaingang with Guy and Tom, their usual coaches. We follow them. They know these roads by heart, each turning a reminder of a race, a thrashing or a victorious breakaway. When it’s our turn on the front, Tom doesn’t hesitate to treat us as if we were his pupils: ‘Keep you elbows in! They should be rubbing on your thighs!’
It starts raining, but this doesn’t dampen the desire for the town-sign sprint. Adin wins and raises his arms as he enters the village. We take advantage of the recovery time to talk with Axel, who took up cycling a year ago after getting injured in Track and Field. At high school his friends think his passion is pretty cool, even if he does have to shave his legs. As for his family, his father enjoys following his performances on Strava, as he does with pros. “I’m a big fan of Rudy Mollard”, Axel says, “But I follow all the riders from FDJ.”
On the road back in, Tom talks about his new duties as coach, which he has to fit in around his job as mechanic at Cycles Victoire, a local framebuilder. At 23, he’s the youngest of the club’s 12 coaches, which makes him something of a big brother to the Juniors he supervises. He took up cycling at around their age, an age when newfound freedoms also mean that kids need the most guidance. An older, wiser brother can be valuable when you need to know where to put your elbows, place your attacks or play your cards for the future.
Like the other coaches, he received his diploma from the FFC (the Fédération Française du Cyclisme), and works as a volunteer. The story of the Étoile Cycliste de Clermont-Ferrand is, in the end, that of all French cycling schools: adults who go to great trouble, given the lack of supporting infrastructure, to pass on their passion to young, fresh-faced riders. And do so to see, through all the efforts and all this time given for free, these kids move towards some success, even on the smallest of platforms. And when their good results become more frequent, there is just a glimmer of hope that you might, as happens once in a generation, see a champion being born. They do it to be there for something. Sometimes this means a bit of time given faithfully, every week; or it’s a bike loaned to someone who doesn’t have the means; or a bit of encouragement, simply being there, or taking pleasure in passing on the stories that may light the spark in someone who might, one day, take their place in the firmament of this ever-renewing sport.
– November 27, 1937: the club was founded
– 150 licence holders, 30 UFOLEP and 40 in artistic cycling
– 3 female licence holders
– 20 volunteers, including 12 supervisors
– 4: the number of major races the club organises: the elite-level Circuit des Communes de la Vallée du Bédat and the Durtocchat; le Grand Prix Cycliste de l’Ambassadrice de Montferrand; and the Prix de la Municipalité de Servant for bike schools